Thursday, 8 January 2015

Chinese archaeologists find 2,800-year old burial of chariots and horses

Dating back to the turbulent Spring and Autumn Period, the tombs evidently belonged to high-ranking nobles. 

Jan. 7, 2015 |  January 7, 2015

Archaeologists excavating ancient tombs in central China have unearthed 28 chariots and 49 pairs of horse skeletons dating back three millennia.
The 2,800-year-old group of tombs, which dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC) is located in the city of Zaoyang, in the province of Hubei. Current explorations have found at least 30 tombs of various sizes.
Preliminary studies show that the tombs belong to high-ranking nobles of the period in Chinese history.
Now a new 33-meter long, four-meter wide chariot pit has been discovered. "This chariot and horse pit is different from those discovered previously along the Yangtze River. The chariots and horses were densely buried," said Liu Xu, professor from School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University. " Many of the wheels were taken off and the rest parts of the chariots were placed one by one."
At least 28 chariots were discovered in three months of excavation. About five meters away the chariot pit was a horse pit, where at least 49 pairs of horse skeletons were discovered.
"Judging from the way the horses were buried, they were buried after they were killed, as there was no trace of struggle. Second, it is the way they were laid. They were laid back to back, lying on their sides. It means that two horses pull one chariot," said Huang Wenxin, researcher from the provincial archaeological institute.
Liu Xu said the number of chariots and horses represent the ranks of the deceased.
"The number of chariots often demonstrated the strength of a country at that time. More chariots mean that the country was powerful. The strength was measured by the number of chariots. In modern words, the chariots represent a kind of high-tech product. Only people with rather high ranks can own chariots," Liu said.
The name of the turbulent "Spring and Autumn Period" in Chinese history is based on Confucius' history of the dynasty of the time, according to some sources. His book was called "Spring and Autumn Annals.
The period was marked by the end of feudalism, nascent urbanization and the birth of powerful states created by the consolidation of smaller principalities, as well as a certain increase in secularism. Among the social changes was the birth of a wealthy merchant class – which may have been among those buried in the tombs now uncovered.
Why horses were buried with the chariots must remain speculative, but it is known that in ancient China of the time, human and animal sacrifices were made to appease the gods of weather, on whose goodwill mankind depended.
The Chinese were far from alone in massive ceremonial burials. The ancient Egyptians of the time were also notorious for human sacrifice, burying servants with their deceased pharaohs - but that was in a much earlier time, around 3100 BC to 2900 BC, the era of the First Dynasty. After that period, the live retainers were replaced by figurines.

From: National Geographic

Pit Crew

Photograph by Zhang Xiaoli, Xinhua via Fame/Barcroft
To protect it from drying out, a worker sprays water onto a millennia-old chariot recently unearthed in the city of Luoyang (map) in central China.
Overall, 5 chariots and 12 horse skeletons were found in the tomb pit, according to China's state-sponsored Xinhua news service. Archaeologists believe the tomb was dug as part of the funeral rites of a minister or other nobleman during the Eastern Zhou dynasty period, about 2,500 years ago.
Chariots were important vehicles of war during the Zhou dynasty and were driven by nobleman-warriors wielding halberds or spears, said David Sena, a China historian at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the discovery.
"During this period, there wasn't a distinction between the military class and an educated aristocratic class," Sena said.
"People with aristocratic backgrounds were expected to do both, and riding a chariot was one of the skills that a nobleman was expected to have."

Toe to Toe

Photograph by Zhang Xiaoli, Xinhua via Fame/Barcroft
The bodies of two horses and a dog were carefully arranged in a smaller grave site discovered at the same time as the larger chariot tomb.
Dogs were important work and sacrificial animals in ancient China, so their presence in the chariot tombs is not unusual, Sena said.
"We often see them in the bottom of pits of human tombs" as well, he added.

Underground Garage

Photograph by Zhang Xiaoli, Xinhua via Fame/Barcroft
The newly unearthed chariot tomb—pictured above early this month—dates to the "heyday of chariot warfare" in China, Sena said.
"Chariots were kind of the main units of warfare during" the Zhou dynasty, he added. "Later, chariots were still used, but their effectiveness was reduced, because you got larger armies composed mostly of commoners, so warfare became much less of an aristocratic affair."

Brushless Chariot Wash

Photograph by Zhang Xiaoli, Xinhua via Fame/Barcroft
A worker sprays water onto some of the recently unearthed chariot horse skeletons to help them retain moisture. Archaeologists believe the 12 deliberately arranged horses were slaughtered prior to being buried.
Many chariots used by noblemen during the Eastern Zhou dynasty were adorned with valuable metals and materials, such as bronze and ivory, though reports of the Luoyang find make no mention of precious materials.
Valuable chariot parts and accessories were often gifts from the Zhou dynasty's ruler himself, Sena explained.
"Many bronze inscriptions describe a kind of political ritual where a nobleman is invested with a title or duty or some land, and that's always accompanied by gift giving. Chariot parts and accoutrements were a very important part of that."

Skeleton Crew

Photograph by Zhang Xiaoli, Xinhua via Fame/Barcroft
It's unclear whether the chariots and horses found in the recently excavated pit were expected to be of use to the buried aristocrat in the afterlife, or whether the practice underscored a family's importance and wealth in life.
It may have been a combination of both, Sena said. "I think we can make the inference that these [chariots and sacrificed horses] spoke to some need that the dead would have in the afterlife."

Endangered Dead?

Photograph from Imaginechina/AP
A Chinese archaeologist investigates a human and animal skeleton at a separate Luoyang site from the Western Zhou dynasty last summer.
Luoyang is currently undergoing rapid expansion, so "archaeologists are really kind of under the gun to save as much of this material before it's destroyed or covered over by industrial growth," Sena said.
"It's very nice to see that they're able to save these things and document them for scholars and for posterity."

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